Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How AdBlock Hurts The Creators You Love

Is there anything worse than Internet ads? They clutter up your search results, they get in your face when you're trying to check your mail, and they crowd in on the sides of the blogs you're trying to read. Worst of all, though, are the mini-commercials that play before the song you really want to listen to, or the tutorial you're trying to watch. Really, with so many businesses trying to jam their products in your face, it was a godsend when you got AdBlock installed on your computer, your tablet, your phone, and if you're old-school, on your desktop, too.

The problem is, what's good for you is actually terrible for the creators making the stuff you like.

After all, wouldn't you help us out if it didn't cost you anything?

Ads Are How Most Online Creators Get Paid

Most people never stop and ask how creative professionals on the Internet get paid. After all, if you buy an author's book, then that author gets a cut of the sale (which are called royalties). If you buy a painting, then the artist who painted it gets a piece of that (or all of it, if the painter is selling it him or herself). But what about people who create YouTube videos, who write blogs, or who design any of the dozens of other things you can get free access to on the Internet? How do they get paid?

Simple. They get part of the ad revenue generated from their pages.

Take this blog, for example. I don't charge any membership fees, and anyone can read it for free on any device. In fact, the more people who read my blog, the more money I make. Because, in addition to dispensing wisdom on the writing profession from my soapbox, this page has ads on it. The more traffic I get, and the more people who see those ads, the more money I make. That's the same for anyone who uses an ad-based platform, whether it's writers at InfoBarrel, or YouTube celebrities like Jim Sterling.

Speaking of Mr. Sterling, he did an episode of The Jimquisition last year for the Escapist covering this very topic. As such, I thought I'd share it to hammer the point home.

So, there you have it. No one likes Internet ads. However, if you have AdBlock on your devices, then you are, effectively, not counted when the end of the month rolls around and our paymasters figure out how much money our traffic earned us. And, to be honest, we need all of the numbers we can get, because it takes thousands of hits for us to earn as little as a few bucks.

That's why I'd like to ask a favor of my regular readers. If you have AdBlock installed on your devices, would you consider turning it off when you read either The Literary Mercenary or Improved Initiative?

If you'd rather keep blocking ads, but you still want me to keep creating content on a regular basis, you could visit my Patreon page to become a patron, instead. $1 an entry, or even a month, goes a long way toward helping me provide even more content for you, my readers.

Well, thanks for stopping by! If you'd like to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then plug your email into the box on the right, or follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter!


  1. Howdy, Neil.

    There are a few serious negatives to advertising that you haven't contemplated. I'll talk about three:

    * Advertising as market manipulation
    * Advertising as theft of attention
    * Advertising as a vector for information security compromise

    Regarding the first, in macroeconomic terms, a market works best when the participants in that market- which is to say, the consumers- have complete information about the suppliers in the market. This frees the consumers to make the best choices, thus leading to a market that maximizes the value for customers; and to allocate resources according to a producer's ability to produce that value.

    The entire raison d'etre for advertising is to mislead consumers about what the "best choice" is; to present only positive facts about a product or service, and thereby to induce the consumer into making a decision that they might not otherwise make; meaning, a suboptimal decision, meaning one that doesn't lead the market to maximize consumer value; and one that allocates resources to producers that exist at some nexus of "good enough product for cost" and "best able to mislead consumers."

    Furthermore, advertising itself has a cost, and can be quite expensive; and all of the time and effort spent on advertising (on writing advertising content; on engineering advertising infrastructure) takes away from the creation of things that would be of actual value to society.

    Regarding the second negative- Advertising as theft of attention- I shall support this conclusion by establishing, first, that Attention is valuable and finite; and second, a reasonable definition of theft that couples the two into a solid train of logic.

    Attention, simply put, is the capacity for a person to interact with a subject; whether that means to read a blog post, to browse a Twitter feed; to watch a YouTube video; and so on. People in general can only interact in this fashion with one thing at a time; though indeed many people will switch rapidly from one activity to another.

    Humans have only a finite amount of attention; we can conceive of a theoretical upper bound composed of all of our waking time, across our lifespan. This time gets increasingly valuable as we age, because we intuitively know we will have less and less of it. For each person, attention is a finite resource. It's a subset of time- time not spent engaged in other necessary activities.

    In economic terms, a thing has value if it is finite and desirable. It's hard to conceive of anything that is not finite; but it's easy to conceive of things that are not desirable. Having already established that Attention is finite, I seek only to demonstrate that it is desirable. Attention is an interesting subject, because it is not attention itself that is desirable, but instead the exercise of attention on entertaining or pleasurable subjects. We can liken this directly to money- money itself indeed has no utility, but for its ability to acquire utile things. The whole of the human experience is perhaps shaped by the desirability of attention; the quest to obtain and _enjoy_ pleasant things, which is impossible without the spare attention to expend in such things' enjoyment.

    So attention is finite, because it is bound by the amount of time in a person's life; and it is desirable, because it is necessary for the enjoyment of all other things. Attention is finite and desirable, and so attention has inherent value.

    For theft, I'll use the definition wherein one deprives another of property, such that the deprived party has less of that property of less use of it; and does so without permission. This obviously applies directly to the theft of things- if you have a ball and I take it from you, you can no longer use it. If I take it from you without your permission, it is stealing.

    (Part 1 of 3)

  2. I think that the subject of permission bears some discussion here. I am not a lawyer, and so I'm not attempting to speak to theft in legal terms; but merely in rhetorical terms. I consider there to be three types of permission: tacit and explicit; and for the latter, sometimes an explicit grant of permission becomes implicit, when its scope can reasonably assumed to be larger than was explicitly stated.

    Tacit permission is a little tricky to define, but I view it as the sort of permission granted when the granter- the owner of the ball- must perform some action to facilitate my taking; and there's an understanding that this action was performed _for the purpose of_ allowing the taking. This largely needs to be left up to reason; if you hand me a ball that I then take, there might reasonably be an understanding of permission. If you unlock the door to your house, which I then enter and take your stereo, that probably was not tacit permission.

    Explicit permission itself is easier to define, and is clear enough on its own basis. Implicit permission complicates matters; it is the specialization of an explicit granting of permission, where the granting had some elements that were quantifiers- "Anyone can take any ball that I own" is an explicit granting of permission. "John may take the red ball that I own" is a specialization of that explicit granting; John is a member of "anyone," and the red ball is a member of "any ball that I own," and so John implicitly has permission to take the red ball. We've all been in situations where someone- jokjingly or otherwise- specialized something in a way we did not anticipate, and so our friend "reasonable" needs to come into play here, too. Explicit permissions are granted with an intent- and a specialization of such permission is only reasonable when it remains within the bounds of that intent.

    To combine all of these elements, consider these statements:
    * Advertising is "taking;" the insertion of advertisements dilutes valuable content, and seeks to take my attention. The worst advertisements do this with simple psychological tricks, like flashing colors, animation, or sound. Subtler advertisements attempt to appear as part of the content. YouTube and their ilk practice a brute force form of advertising, by preventing me from even viewing content until I have given attention to advertisements. I did not willingly give attention to advertisements- I did not knowingly click on a link to a page full of ads, I did not go to; and so forth. But attention was nonetheless exchanged, and so if it was not given, it must have been taken.
    * I did not give permission. When I navigate to a website, I am giving explicit permission to receive all of the content on that website. To show me advertisements in addition to that content is to specialize that permission in a way that I did not intend. The only difference is that the lapse is so small, individuals rarely complain about the specific instance; and in any case there is nobody to complain directly to. You, Neil Litherland, did not show me the ads; your website did. (Much less when it's a subsidiary of a corporate entity, as with YouTube). Ad Blockers are a way to call out explicitly the _exceptions_ to the permission I have given. I am not stopping you from doing something you have a right to, I am explicitly laying out what I am willing to allow.

    So to pull it all together: Attention is finite and valuable; and advertising is the taking of it without permission. Advertising is theft of attention.

    (Part 2 of 3)

  3. Other types of theft would be obviously and intuitively wrong; if TSA searches wallets when I go to the airport and they remove some of the cash they find to pay for their operations, that is theft, even though I subjected myself to the search. I liken it to the scale of the theft; if the TSA merely took a penny, people probably wouldn't notice or be inclined to make as much an issue of it (though some still would.) Advertising's theft of attention is likewise small, but that doesn't make it not wrong.

    My final argument is more technical; that advertising is a vector for information security compromise. This is in fact my area of expertise; I'm an Information Security professional. The term of art for this is "malvertising," the use of advertising networks to spread malware. This isn't theoretical, and rather than continuing to rant, I'll recommend independent research to convince yourself of the veracity of this claim. To start with, here's a blog post describing a very recent incident that affected websites you probably use yourself:

    What, then, is my point? Advertising in its current form is evil, yes; but an evil thing can be made not evil with the explicit granting of permission. Moreover, you can demonstrate respect for your audience by giving them information and choices: Explain first that your primary support model is via advertising, and ask your readers to explicitly opt in- that is, ask for explicit permission. Provide alternatives, which may not be anything other than your existing Patreon. Find a platform that will let you exempt paid supporters from advertising. And, personally, consider the morality of relying on advertising for your revenue.

    I don't know what your ad revenue looks like now, while the Patreon revenue is publicitly visible; but you'd probably engender good will with your audience by defiantly going ad-free and working more to attract and reward patreon supporters; on the contrary, posting a few hundred words about the "harms" of ad block _almost_ turned me (a patreon supporter and reader) into a non-supporter non-reader. But, then, I apparently have an anti-advertising axe to grind.

    - Patrick

    (Part 3 of 3)